This is the author’s version of a work that was submitted/accepted for pub-
lication in the following source:
Johansson, Eva, Brownlee, Joanne M., Cobb-Moore, Charlotte, Boulton-
Lewis, Gillian M., Walker, Sue, & Ailwood, Joanne (2011) Practices for
teaching moral values in the early years : a call for a pedagogy of partici-
pation. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 6(2), pp. 109-124.
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Title: Practices for teaching moral values in the early years: A call for a pedagogy of participation
First author (contact): Professor Eva Johansson
Department of Early Childhood Education, Faculty of Arts and Education
University of Stavanger
NO- 4036 Stavanger, Norway
Second author: Associate Professor Jo Brownlee (Queensland University of Technology)
Centre for Learning Innovation, Faculty of Education
Queensland University of Technology
Victoria Park Road, Kelvin Grove
Qld, 4059 AUSTRALIA
Third author: Dr. Charlotte Cobb-Moore (Queensland University of Technology)
Centre for Learning Innovation, Faculty of Education
Queensland University of Technology
Victoria Park Road, Kelvin Grove
Qld, 4059 AUSTRALIA
Fourth author: Emeritus Professor Gillian Boulton-Lewis (Queensland University of Technology)
School of Design, Faculty of BEE
Queensland University of Technology
14 Lakeway Drive, Cooroibah
Qld, 4565, AUSTRALIA
Fifth author: Dr. Susan Walker (Queensland University of Technology)
School of Early Childhood, Faculty of Education
Queensland University of Technology
Victoria Park Road, Kelvin Grove
Qld, 4059 AUSTRALIA
Sixth author: Adjunct Associate Professor Joanne Ailwood (Queensland University of Technology)
Centre for Learning Innovation
Queensland University of Technology
Victoria Park Road, Kelvin Grove
Qld, 4059 AUSTRALIA
Schools have long been seen as institutions for preparing children for life, both academically and as moral
agents in society. In order to become capable, moral citizens, children need to be provided with
opportunities to learn moral values. However, little is known about how teachers enact social and moral
values programs in the classroom. The aim of this paper is to investigate the practices that Australian
early years teachers describe as important for teaching moral values. To investigate early years teachers’
understandings of moral pedagogy, 379 Australian teachers with experience teaching children in the early
years were invited to participate in an on-line survey. This paper focuses on responses provided to an
open-ended question relating to teaching practices for moral values. The responses were analysed using
an interpretive methodology. The results indicate that the most prominent approaches to teaching moral
values described by this group of Australian early years teachers were engaging children in moral
activities. This was closely followed by teaching practices for transmitting moral values. Engaging
children in building meaning and participatory learning for moral values were least often described.
Moral values, teaching, early education, citizenship, rights based curriculum
Schools have long been seen as institutions for preparing children for life, both academically and as moral agents
in society. In order to become capable, moral citizens, children need to be provided with opportunities to learn
moral values (Halstead & Pike, 2006). This recognition has resulted in values education becoming a part of the
curriculum in many schools at both the international and national level. Values education provides a way of
thinking about morality which involves the question ‘what kind of person shall I be?’ (Halstead & Pike, 2006, p.
15). Moral values are both positive and negative qualities socially constructed that we express and experience in
our own and others’ behaviour, acts and attitudes. Morality concerns the life we live and norms for how to treat
others. The aim of this paper is to investigate the practices that Australian early years teachers describe as
important for teaching moral values. The focus is on how teachers describe their teaching practices for children’s
moral learning and how they conceptualize children’s moral learning.
Internationally, interest is evidenced in a growing focus on policy and research in values education in the UK
(Halstead & Pike, 2006; Hawkes, 2008); United States (Cooley, 2008; Leonard, 2007); and Canada (Darling,
2002) because ‘the public and its representatives continue to be concerned about how young citizens act in
society and what they learn in school about morality’ (Cooley, 2008, p. 189). The Convention on the Rights of
the Child is an important document which advocates for the child’s right to be heard and be involved in issues of
their concern. It reflects international consensus about children’s human rights (Freeman, 1995; Smith, 2005),
which demands the inclusion of children’s voices in teaching practices, including the teaching of values
(Berthelsen, Brownlee & Johansson, 2009; Dalhberg & Moss 2005; Smith, Taylor & Gollop, 2000). In the
Nordic countries there is a increasing interest in research on moral issues, democracy and children’s influence
and participation (Emilson & Johansson, 2009; Johansson, 1999; 2007) although there is a lack of knowledge
about how and in what way schools and preschools are arenas for children’ s moral development (Colnerud &
Thornberg, 2003; Johansson, 2006; Ohnstad, 2008; Thornberg, 2009).
Moral values education is also a national priority in Australia. Values education became a policy priority in mid
2002, as part of a federally funded Quality Teaching Program initiative. Explicit values education is seen as
important in helping students to reach their full learning potential and become responsible and contributing
members of society (Lovat & Toomey, 2007). In 2005, the development of the Australian National Framework
for Values Education in Australian Education (DEST, 2005) provided a further focus on values education. This
framework is a reflection of values identified as underpinning our democratic way of life where, in the pursuit of
multicultural and environmentally sustainable society, justice is deemed the entitlement of all. It comprises nine
values: care and compassion, doing one’s best, ‘fair go’, freedom, honesty and trustworthiness, integrity, respect,
responsibility, and understanding, tolerance and inclusion. In order to promote such values, the goals of teaching
are to help students understand and apply these values and to provide a safe and secure learning environment to
explore values within a whole school approach (DEST, 2005). Specifically, a range of teaching strategies are
advocated in this framework which include implicit and explicit teaching, opportunities to practice values,
explicit planning, implementation and monitoring and learning through all facets of school life, discussion, and
More recently, the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (MCEETYA,
2008) was released as a key guiding document in the development of education policy and curricula at
various levels of Australian government. The Melbourne Declaration is premised on the idea that
‘Schools play a vital role in promoting the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, moral, spiritual and
aesthetic development and wellbeing of young Australians’ (MCEETYA, 2008, p. 4). While the
importance of moral and values-based education is implicit throughout the document, there is also an
explicit reference to the goal of young Australians becoming active and informed citizens who ‘act with
moral and ethical integrity’ (MCEETYA, 2008, p. 9).
Values and citizenship education is also referred to in the Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE)
Essential Learnings Queensland curriculum document, which highlights that, by the end of year three,
children should have experiences identifying and reflecting on values in everyday situations and local
contexts (Queensland Studies Authority, 2007). In regards to this, the document particularly highlights
values associated with fairness and behaving peacefully. Topics related to the concept of citizenship are
also briefly addressed in the SOSE Essential Learnings document. It states ‘Citizenship involves
belonging to groups and communities and valuing different contributions and behaviours such as caring
for other members’ (Queensland Studies Authority, 2007, p. 3). The document mentions rights and
responsibilities, rules, democratic decision-making, and voting and provides some suggestions of what
these concepts look like within a school-context, such as classroom responsibilities, student councils, and
voting for class rules; however, none of these concepts are explored in-depth.
These policy documents provide the backdrop for the teaching and learning of values within Australian
schools. However, within these documents, the complexity of the issue of values education is not clearly
addressed. For example, values (e.g. care and compassion, ‘fair go’, freedom) are presented in an
unproblematic way, and in so doing, they can be taken for granted. Little is said about their complexity,
the different ways in which they can be interpreted or that some values can be in conflict with each other.
Rather, teachers are left to interpret these values in their own way, which can present a dilemma in
teaching for moral values.
The use of relevant policy documents provides a way to consider the macro elements of learning for
moral values. An ecological approach is a useful way to conceptualise the relationships between macro
and micro influences on children’s moral learning (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). This integrative ecological
framework was used in our study to enable the various macro and micro elements of policy analysis,
teachers’ beliefs and child characteristics to be drawn into focus for consideration. The current paper
presents analyses of the micro elements of teacher beliefs about their practice.
Teaching for moral values
Teaching for moral values, or moral pedagogy, refers to teaching practices that aim to develop moral awareness,
reasoning, understanding, and behaviours in children. In an overview of research within the field, Johansson
(2006) found three traditions for moral research and pedagogy: cognitive, emotional and cultural. These three
traditions emphasize different aspects of children’s morality and can be further considered in terms of two main
paradigms. In the first paradigm, the cognitive and the emotional traditions view inner biological abilities such as
cognitive and emotional maturity as essential for moral development thus influencing approaches to teaching.
The second paradigm views culture as integral to moral development and thus focuses on the importance of
teaching morality from the perspective of the active child and taking context and culture into consideration.
Basourakos (1999) also described moral pedagogies that fall into two dominant paradigms: conventional moral
pedagogy and contextual moral pedagogy. The first, conventional moral pedagogy, is where abstract moral
reasoning is taught directly to children. The epistemology of this approach reflects moral knowledge as absolute
and transferable. Teaching approaches that emerge from this tradition would include strategies like direct
instruction in moral values or modelling appropriate values in interactions with children. This paradigm reflects
Johansson’s (2006) account of cognitive and emotional traditions which focus on developmental notions of
morality. From such a perspective, children are regarded as being developmentally ready, or not, to engage in
certain moral behaviours and this has implications for what can be “taught” to them.
Conventional moral pedagogies may be complex, consisting of implicit and explicit strategies. Johansson (2002)
found that Swedish teachers wanted to be good role models by encouraging children’s supportiveness in helping
children to understand others and to express themselves. On the other hand, adults could implicitly condemn,
threaten and punish, when they think children are violating important values. In conventional moral pedagogies,
moral values which are important to children can be overlooked by teachers. Instead, adults base their teaching
on their own opinions of what they think children need to learn about showing consideration for others. The
notion that children could develop their own moral values, or that children are important to each other in their
learning of morality, was not evidenced by the teachers in Johansson’s study. Nordin-Hultman (2004) has shown
that implicit forms of teaching values may be embedded in the impersonal rules and routines of the preschool and
not necessarily through the use of explicit power by an authoritarian adult. Berthelsen (2005) discussed how
early childhood teachers emphasized the importance of adherence to rules and routines. The concept of
“benevolent government” developed by Bartholdsson (2007) illustrates how children are governed by teachers
encouraging them to follow norms, take personal responsibility, and self-regulate their own behaviour.
A second, alternate pedagogy, according to Basourakos (1999) is contextual moral pedagogy, which takes a
different epistemological perspective to the conventional pedagogies. From this perspective, moral knowledge is
constructed within and related to certain contexts, which reflects Johansson’s (2006) cultural perspective of
moral pedagogy. Thus, children’s moral development is interwoven with the social and cultural context, with
their personal history and with interactions with other persons, adults and playmates (Johansson, 2007; see also
Dunn, 2006). Very young children appear to be aware of their social knowledge and they use this in their
relationships with others (see Johansson, 2006; Killen & Smetana, 2006, for overviews).
There is empirical evidence to suggest that awareness of social knowledge is reflected in the evaluation and
questioning of the legitimacy of social rules and authority (Johansson, 2009). Coady (2008) believes that children
do not just unquestioningly follow adults but actively construct their own moral meaning and perspective.
Halstead and Pike (2006) support Coady’s view by claiming that the morally educated person is one who not
only understands and behaves in accordance with moral principles but has developed this morality through a
process of reflection. However, morality is not just about interpreting and reflecting on abstract principals
(Frønes, 1995). It is also about discerning the complexity of social situations in which values and norms are
negotiated. This requires a capacity to be open to various social perspectives. This communicative competence
emerges from the child's experiences of interaction with others, especially with peers (Frønes, 1995). Morality
grows out of relationships between subjects rather than being the result of an autonomous subject's logical
reasoning (Johansson, 2007), as is the case in conventional pedagogy.
In contextual moral pedagogies, children are encouraged to reflect on multiple “truths”. This means that
there is no one truth in moral values and moral education helps children to reflect with sensitivity on
competing perspectives. Johansson (2009) refers to this as moral pluralism in teaching for moral values,
which is based on the acceptance of different values and different interpretations of values. The idea is
also that value conflicts in everyday interactions have potentials for moral learning. It is important to be
able to discern the complexity in social situations and the different values imbedded in those. Teachers
who encourage children to reflect critically and empathetically on experiences, with a view to analysing
the range of moral perspectives would be drawing on contextual moral pedagogy (also Nucci, 2001). Co-
operative group learning strategies and engagement in community service as advocated by Demmon et al
(1996) could also conceivably fall into this tradition if a focus on critical reflection takes place within
these contexts. These contextual moral pedagogies focus on acceptance of different values and different
interpretations of values, as well as children’s active engagement in critical reflection. Such pedagogy
could conceivably be described as a rights-based approach to moral pedagogy because children’s voices
are fore grounded. Such pedagogy have been suggested by several researchers in recent research, for
example by Smith (2005; see also Bae, 2007; Berthelsen, Brownlee & Johansson, 2009; Carr, Lee &
Jones 2004; Clark & Moss, 2001; Farrell, 2008; Pramling Samuelsson & Asplund Carlsson, 2008).
According to Smith (2005) participation rights supports a sense of belonging and inclusion, but, more
importantly, teaches children how they can bring about change.
There is a current focus in Australian education on moral pedagogy which incorporates values into the
curriculum as a means of producing responsible, active members of society; however, there is little emphasis on
children’s voices in this process. Internationally, there is a well-established literature base around research and
advocacy for children’s rights to participate in both public and private decision-making, especially in matters that
directly affect them (OECD, 2006; Woodhead, 2008). Children’s rights to participate and hold a point of view are
reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). However, there is limited
international and Australian research which investigates the extent to which children’s voices are included in
teaching moral values. A rights-based approach to teaching views children as competent learners with valued
knowledge and understanding of themselves and others, and calls for their participation in the process
(MacNaughton et al., 2008). A rights-based pedagogy not only supports the rights of individual children but also
helps children to understand the rights of others. Within right-based approaches, children are provided with
opportunities to make choices and decisions, which can help children to recognise the impact of their choices on
others (Nyland, 2009). However, rights-based pedagogies are not common in classrooms (Helwig, 2006). In the
Australian Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) context, it is possible to observe emergent curriculum
and child-centred practices but often these approaches remain focused on the teacher’s perspectives of what
should be learnt.
Children learn a great deal about moral values through the teaching practices enacted in classrooms (Tomanovic,
2003). However, Greenberg et al. (2003) has noted very little is known about how teachers enact social and
moral values programs in the classroom and the effects (impact) that different kinds of programs have on
children’s developing morality (Colnerud & Thornberg, 2003). Using analysis of open-ended written responses,
this study investigated what kind of practices Australian early years teachers believe are important for teaching
In order to investigate early years teachers’ understandings of moral pedagogy, Australian teachers were invited
to participate in an on-line survey. Respondents with experience teaching children in the 5-8 years age range
were contacted through early childhood organisations, via University Alumni networks and through email and
newsletters. A link to an electronic on-line survey was provided and a total of 379 teachers responded.
Respondents were located Australia wide. Most teachers (83%) were from Queensland and 41 (11.4%) were
from New South Wales. Smaller numbers of respondents resided in the remaining states with seven from
Tasmania, five from Victoria, three from the Northern Territory and two from Western Australia, while only one
teacher was from South Australia. Most of the respondents were female (93%), with ages ranging from 22 to 76
(M = 43.5 years, SD = 10.7) and from 1 year to 46 years teaching experience (M = 17 years, SD = 10.7). There
was a wide variation in the level of the qualifications held by respondents. Bachelor Degrees were the most
common at 177 (47.3%) however, eight (2.1%) respondents held a Doctoral Degree, 61 (16.3%) held a Masters
Degree, and 90 (24.1%) held a Graduate Diploma or Certificate. The majority of respondents, a total of 198
(52.9%) had completed their highest level of training in the field of Early Childhood Education. A total of 111
(29.7%) specified Primary or Secondary Education as their field of study while only 14 (3.7%) nominated
The online survey consisted of a series of questions relating to teachers’ epistemological beliefs and beliefs about
children’s moral learning. At the end of the survey, two open-ended questions were posed asking teachers to
describe how they teach moral values in their classrooms and how they think children learn moral values. The
Question 1: What are the most important practices you use in your classroom which you believe help
children to learn moral values?
Question 2: Give an example of a situation in which you noticed a young child learnt something about
This paper focuses on responses provided to the first question, relating to teaching practices for moral
values. It is important to note that the data is not about the actual everyday teaching practice, but is about
teachers’ descriptions of their educational practice. The responses to these questions varied in length and
ranged from several lines to half a page of text. This means that some descriptions could be fairly short
whereas others are detailed recounts. In the analysis of all responses, the research team ensured that the
meaning was evident within the statement itself. If there was not enough evidence to support allocation to
a theme the statements was described as not codable. For example, if a response suggested that moral
pedagogy involved engaging children in building meaning we did not assign it to the theme of building
meaning unless the text clearly described a focus on such things as engaging children in problem solving,
processing information for themselves, thinking reflectively, or making links to their previous knowledge
and experiences. Complexity in the described teaching practices was taken into account but also the
values implied and/or explicated in the teachers’ descriptions.
Using an interpretive methodology, the responses were analysed using Creswell’s data analysis spiral
(2002). The spiral involves three main steps. In the first step, sensitising, three members of the research
team familiarised themselves with the data by reading the written responses to develop an understanding
of what was important in the data. This enabled the researchers to develop theoretical sensitivity. They
made notes and highlighted points of relevance.
In the second step, categorising, the data was analysed. These categories were developed inductively.
This enabled the complexity of responses to emerge from the data, rather than being reduced to fit within
a theoretical framework. Shank (2006) describes this process as “making note of the same sort of things
you pick up, either implicitly or explicitly, when you pay attention to unfolding events in the world” (p.
147). In step two, we paid selective attention to the points that we believed related to our focus on moral
pedagogy and learning. This process of searching for emergent patterns and coding into themes is referred
to as thematic analysis (TA). It involves comparing meaning statements with other meaning statements,
meaning statements with emergent themes and finally themes with other themes (Creswell, 2005) until
the point at which no new themes emerge (known as saturation). This means that different meanings
about how to teach values were of interest in the analyses.
In the third step, synthesis, themes were scrutinised to see if any were similar enough to be combined. The
trustworthiness of themes that emerged was promoted through a process of peer debriefing. Specifically, a peer
debriefing process known as dialogic reliability was used in which three researchers coded 20 % of data together
to establish the themes through negotiation (Åkerlind, 2005). The remaining responses were coded by one
researcher. Any disagreements were resolved through discussion at this stage. In the next stage of peer
debriefing, two additional researchers interrogated the themes and exemplars. These two researchers had
extensive research expertise in teaching practice in early childhood and teaching strategies for working with
children’s morality. Once again, agreement was reached through a process of discussion and negotiation.
The themes that emerged for the open-ended question are presented in this section.
Teaching practices for moral values
This open-ended question related to the types of teaching practices teachers believed helped children to learn
moral values. In analysing teachers’ responses, we identified a range of themes as summarised in Table 1.
Table 1: Teaching practices for moral values
In Table 1 a total of 363 responses were provided to the first open-ended question. Of these, 101 teachers
provided accounts where their practice could be described as transmit moral values, 181 as engaging children in
moral activities, 63 engaging children in building meaning about moral values and 4 as engaging children in
participatory learning for moral values. Fourteen responses were not codable. These not codable responses
discussed issues that did not respond to the question, or were not clear. We now turn to each of these themes for
Transmit moral values
Responses were coded as transmitting moral values when teachers provided accounts of practices such as
demonstrating, direct instructions or modelling moral values for children. These practices were the second most
frequently described by the respondents, with nearly a third of the group (101 out of 363 respondents) drawing
on these teaching practices.
An example of responses that were categorised as transmitting moral values can be seen below:
Through example a teacher should show respect for others...adults AND children. This can also be explained
by verbalising the way others should be treated (Response 36).
This teacher highlights the importance of respect as a teaching practice. She emphasises her role as a model, an
implicit teaching practice (“through example”) and also comments on the practice of direct or explicit teaching
(“verbalising”). These teaching strategies position the teacher as the ‘authority’ who demonstrates and explains to
children the concept of respect. The implicit assumption is that children are able to learn from the teacher’s
behaviour and the children are not explicitly discussed as actively participating.
The following response also shows a teacher describing the transmission of moral values as a teaching practice:
By Example! By giving the clear rules of the classroom and keeping the consequences consistent,
meaningful and relevant (Response 88).
This response indicates that teaching practices through which children can be taught moral values include setting
a moral example, and being explicit about rules and consequences. These practices are transmissive, the teacher
providing moral instruction through modelling and setting rules.
From the first example we learn that respect is an important value and from the second example, rules are
important in the teacher’s description of practice. In the following response, responsibilities seem to be more of a
priority than rights for this teacher. The respondent highlights the teacher’s role as a model, and also as an
explicit teacher in teaching children moral values:
Children learn what they live. This is not an original thought, but children learn more from what you do
than what you say they should do. By example, at every 'moment of truth' children are assessing how
authentic teachers are in their respective positions on moral issues and the responsibilities and rights of
any citizen. I tell them that responsibilities come before rights, just as 're' comes before 'ri' in the alphabet
and this is a simple way to make a profound point (Response 65).
This teacher also alludes to the children’s own role in this process, that they ‘learn what they live’ and also that
they are involved in ‘assessing how authentic teachers are’. Children are positioned as observers and evaluators
of the authenticity of moral instruction. While transmissive teaching strategies are described, the teacher also
acknowledges children’s active role of evaluation. The teacher talks about ‘moments of truth’ in children’s lives,
acknowledging that children’s own life experiences influence the learning of moral values. However, in this
response, the teacher focuses on her role as an ‘authority’.
Engage children in moral activities
The second theme related to engaging children in moral activities. This was the most common strategy described
by teachers with approximately half the group (181 out of 363 teachers) discussing such approaches to teaching
moral values. These approaches were based on getting children engaged using a range of activities. However,
whilst children were active in this process there was, however, little emphasis on reflection. It often represented a
hands-on way to transmit moral values, for example “role playing situations they have or may encounter”
Role play involves the children’s active participation in the learning process. The teacher also talks about role
playing situations that children ‘have or may encounter’. Thus, the children’s input of their own experiences is a
key part of this teaching strategy. Engaging children in moral activities often meant that the teacher tried to help
children to tap into their own experiences of moral issues.
The use of discussion was another teaching strategy that was considered to be reflective of engaging children in
Class discussion about events that take place in class and how they could be dealt with if they reoccur -
modelling language for apology - scaffolding children to discuss with each other what has happened when
they feel someone has 'wronged' them (Response 118).
The teacher highlights practices, such as discussion, that actively involve children in the learning process, with
the teacher scaffolding the learning. The response implies concepts of collective learning, where the group of
children, as a class, are used as a resource for the discussion. Concern for, and understanding of others is
implicitly valued by this teacher as part of moral values teaching and learning. The teacher refers to “events that
take place in class”. Thus, children’s everyday school experiences are drawn upon in the teaching of moral
values. The respondent highlights teaching the children through the practice of encouraging them to tap into their
emotions (e.g. “when they feel someone has ‘wronged’ them”). It seems that emotions can be drawn upon as a
resource when teaching about social and moral values. The teacher describes the transmissive practice of
“modelling”; however, this is used in conjunction with active teaching practices. Respondents often described
active teaching practices in conjunction with transmissive practices for teaching moral values. While some of the
strategies described in this theme seem to promote active learning, this learning was about a pre-determined set
of values for moral learning. In the next theme, Engaging children in building meaning, the approaches to
teaching morals were not only focused on active learning, but it was clear that children were actively
constructing their own understanding of moral values.
Engage children in building meaning about moral values
In this theme, approaches to teaching moral values involve children actively engaging in building their own
meaning about moral values through problem solving, negotiation, and reflection. Around 1/6 of the respondents
described this approach to teaching moral values (sixty-three out of 363 respondents). The following response
exemplifies these practices.
Mostly - showing respect for children and demonstrating this through our interactions. Plan do reflect
cycle of teaching with children - shows respect for children - values their interests and input into the
program. Seeing social issues in the classroom as 'teachable moments' and reflecting with the children on
feelings and appropriate strategies. Challenging stereotypes and unjust practices in stories and life e.g.
'Could a woman be a fireman?' 'Why; why not?' 'How do you think John feels when you tell him he is
smelly?' - asking what the children think/brainstorm what would be an appropriate way to behave in this
situation (Response 98).
In this response, the teacher describes teaching practices that encourage children to reflect upon situations
requiring moral values, including others’ feelings and how their own behaviour might affect others’ feelings, and
ways of dealing with issues. The teacher also talks about the importance of showing ‘respect’. Respect can be
understood not only as a value in itself, but also as a teaching practice. The idea of ‘challenging stereotypes’
implies a focus on the ability to critically analyse. Thus, the teacher engages children in higher order thinking
about moral values. She also uses social issues as a base for learning about moral values, again making a link to
real life learning. Another teaching practice that the teacher articulates is encouraging children to put themselves
in another’s situation. The teacher discusses the importance of thinking about and articulating feelings as a way
of developing children’s understanding about moral values. Here the child is positioned as an active member of
the community, able to reflect and draw conclusions about moral issues.
The next example provides evidence of teaching practices for engaging children in moral activities, which were
evident in the previous theme (discussion and collective learning). Practices aimed at engaging children in
‘thinking’ to build understandings of moral values are also seen:
We discuss issues and collaboratively talk about positive actions that could be used. We always think (and
usually verbalise) how our actions (positive and negative) affect other people. We explore how to be a good
friend and look at strategies that help us work together as a caring classroom (Response 101).
Here, children are encouraged to ‘explore’ and ‘look at strategies that help us work together’, practices that
engage children in thinking and building meaning about moral issues. The teacher also describes the need for
children to think about and understand the relationship between their own actions and the impact on others.
Throughout this response, the teacher uses the term, ‘we’ – the teacher is not positioned as an ‘expert’, but rather
as a fellow learner. In this theme, the respondents are concerned about making children reflect and understand
values and moral behaviour. In the next theme the teacher extends the practice encouraging children to stretch
their understanding through and for action.
Engage children in participatory learning for moral values
Responses coded as engage children in participatory learning for moral values were those in which teachers
described the child and teacher as not only building meaning but also putting this new moral understanding into
action. These could be described as activist approaches to teaching moral values. Only four respondents out of
363 described practices for teaching moral values that were categorised as engaging children in participatory
learning, for example:
I work in a democratic school which empowers children to participate in many issues within the school
community, and this in turn leads to learning about moral values through actively discussing and reflecting
on conflict situations. I also think modelling of moral values and ethics by respected peers and adults
including the teacher is vital for healthy moral development. The children I teach spend a lot of time in
conversations about conflicts and issues, including social justice issues beyond the immediate classroom,
and through conversation and debate, moral values are both stimulated and challenged. Ultimately, the
important practices I use would be conversations, relationships, modelling and participatory democracy
This teacher employs various practices, including conversation, debate, and drawing on everyday conflicts as a
base for moral learning. The teacher also indicates that children are encouraged to engage with broader social
issues, “beyond the classroom”. This example includes elements of transmitting moral values (e.g., modelling);
engaging children in moral activities (e.g., discussion); and also engaging children in building meaning (e.g.,
reflecting). However, it goes beyond that, in that here, we see the teacher describing practices that are used to
encourage children to build and demonstrate their understanding about moral values through and for action.
Thus, children are not only involved in thinking about moral issues, but also in using their understandings to do
something about moral issues. The respondent talks about children’s participation and empowerment as a way of
learning about moral values and highlights values which they consider important, such as respect, democracy and
social justice. This is an example of transformative teaching practices, where children are encouraged not only to
build understandings of moral values, but to do something with these understandings. This response differs from
the previous theme which focussed on building meaning. In this example, the teacher explicitly discusses
children’s participation in a way that goes beyond talking or thinking about it, to doing something with the
understandings they have about moral values.
In the next response, the respondent also describes practices that can empower children:
When working with children aged 5-6 years I build a relationship as a teacher with each child. This
relationship is based on mutual respect. I consult the children about issues which affect the entire group.
We brainstorm solutions and co-operatively plan strategies. When a solution does not work we re-visit our
position and decide on another tactic. This empowers the children to take responsibility for their actions
and decisions and to learn to work co-operatively to reach a solution. I also consult the children as a group
if one child within the group is struggling with making 'good choices' with their behaviour or daily routine.
We talk about how we can help that person to co-operate. We talk about how we feel when we are all
working together and how we feel when someone does not co-operate. I truly believe that your own
standards make you what you are and determine how you react to situations (Response 120).
Problem solving and the use of strategies are discussed in this quote. The respondent is describing practices in
which children are encouraged to build moral understandings and then draw upon these understandings in their
activities. The teacher describes a collective learning environment, in which values such as mutual respect,
community cooperation, empowerment, helping others, and taking responsibility are encouraged. These values
can also be seen to inform teaching practices. In general, the respondents in this theme are concerned about
children’s participation and empowerment as a way of learning about moral values, thus demonstrating a rights-
based approach to moral learning.
The most prominent approaches to teaching moral values described by this group of Australian early years
teachers were engaging children in moral activities. This was closely followed by teaching practices for
transmitting moral values. Engaging children in building meaning and participatory learning for moral values
were least often described.
Based on the responses to the first open-ended question there appears to be a strong focus on conventional
pedagogies. Again we would like to stress that this study does not inform us about teachers’ practices per se.
Rather, it reveals how teachers describe and evaluate practices for moral education. Conventional moral
pedagogy involves an epistemology which reflects moral knowledge as absolute and transferable, with role
modelling a common teaching strategy. The teachers in our study overwhelmingly reported transmissive
(transmit moral values) and active (engage children in moral activities) teaching practices.
Our findings regarding transmissive teaching practices are reflected in Johansson’s (2002) study where she also
found that teachers employed modelling as an important practice for children’s learning of moral values. These
teachers in this study also seemed to hold moral values as absolute, and in some examples the teachers seemed to
view children as lacking ability to understand and relate to values. It is important to note that the children in
Johansson’s study were younger than the children in this study. In other research with elementary school
children, Johansson and Johansson (2003) studied moral interaction between teachers and children
schools in Sweden. Three different positions upon which the teachers seemed to build their pedagogical practice
were found in the study. The two most common positions revealed that the teachers regarded inner abilities such
as emotion and cognition as the pillars upon which moral development and learning should be built. The third
The children were in the similar age as the children in this study
and least common position was connected with intersubjectivity and a contextual approach to moral learning.
Our study also found that the contextual approach to moral learning, or the pedagogy of participation, was the
least often described moral pedagogy.
In addition to transmissive teaching practices for moral values, the teachers in our study reported active views of
teaching and learning for moral values. The teaching practice described most frequently by the teachers was
engaging children in moral activities. Thus, children’s active involvement in moral issues is a central theme in
the teaching practices, described here as a pedagogy of enactment. This pedagogy of enactment actively engages
children in some way in the process of learning moral values; for example, seeking their involvement in the
learning process through practices such as discussion or role play. These types of responses, both in terms of
teaching and in terms of children’s learning, explicitly discussed engaging the children in their learning about
moral values through activities. The descriptions also indicated that teachers want children to reflect on and
understand others’ feelings or understand a moral situation where someone is in a position of need. Enabling
children to experience and understand others’ feelings seems to be an important practice for the teachers in
helping children learn values. Johansson (2002) also noted similar findings where teachers made an effort to help
children experience concern for others’ feelings and situations. Here, the value of concern is not explicit, rather
understanding others seems to be taken for granted as a result of moral learning.
The teachers in our study were not asked to reflect upon their moral values, yet they often described such values
as a practice for learning. Respect for instance, is a value frequently expressed by the teachers and implies that
the roles of both teachers and children include being respectful of each other. One teacher reported that she
shows children respect with the intention that children should then experience and model this kind of value.
Sharing, as a value, can be communicated by teachers through actually sharing with children in order to make
them aware of this value. The value of responsibility is also found in the teachers’ descriptions. On the one hand
responsibility can be seen as a value imposed on children, while on the other hand it is described as an essential
component of children’s involvement as active participants in the community. Values related to children’s rights
were seldom expressed in the study, but could be found among the teachers who described participatory practice.
In those few cases we found values for community, mutual respect, understanding and concern for others.
While the responses focused on a pedagogy of enactment indicate a preference for teaching and learning that
moves beyond modelling and observing, there is no clear indication in these responses that children are able to
make choices or set the directions of their moral learning. The teacher’s agenda is at the forefront of such moral
learning (McGrath et al., 2008). What is not clear in these responses is the extent to which children are
constructed as competent, agentic learners with valued knowledge and understanding of themselves and others
(MacNaughton et al., 2008). On the contrary, for some teachers, rules seemed important in the children’s moral
learning. Rules ought to be explicit and understandable and the consequences should be clear to the children.
Here we can find connections with the disciplinary values found in Emilson and Johansson’s study (2009) on
teachers’ communication of values. Disciplinary values refer to rules upholding the order in preschool Emilson
and Johansson noted that children’s voices are often not heard because of teachers´ attitudes, rules and use of
power. For example, Emilson and Johansson describe how the value of caring in early years classrooms seems to
be fore grounded, while there is less focus on values of democracy and rights. Also Thornberg (2009) found that
teachers and children in school persistently communicated rules for behaviour.
There is little evidence in the responses of pedagogy whereby children are encouraged to take responsibility for
their learning and demonstrate agency. Only a few teachers reported teaching practices as engaging children in
participatory learning (n=4). We describe this view of teaching and learning as a pedagogy of participation
which draws on a rights-based approach to teaching and learning. The notion of rights refers to powers or
freedoms to behave in certain ways (Coady, 2008). Therefore, a rights-based approach to teaching views children
as competent learners with valued knowledge and understanding of themselves and others (MacNaughton et al.,
2008). Such an approach reflects the notion of the ‘rich child’ who plays a role in ‘shaping their own childhoods’
(Woodhead, 2008, p. 21). A pedagogy of participation reflects the notion of contextual moral pedagogies
(Basourakos, 1999) where moral values are constructed and actioned by children. It appears from our analysis
that children’s involvement at this participatory level in the teaching and learning of moral values is less common
in the responses. These responses provided little evidence of a “rich child” discourse or a rights-based approach
to teaching moral values (Woodhead, 2008). Our data would support Emilson and Johansson’s (2009) view that
teachers´ attitudes, rules and use of power may prevent children from being agentic and powerful in determining
their own futures. Like Emilson and Johansson, we noted in the teachers’ responses that values of caring in early
years classrooms are more significant than values of democracy and rights. On the one hand, the Convention of
the Child’s right mirrors a world consensus on the status of children as citizens in their own right (Boshier,
2005). On the other hand, the narratives from the teachers in this study indicate that these ideas might not reach
out into children’s everyday lives in early education and in practices for children’s moral learning. It seems that
educational practices which involve children’s voices in the teaching of moral values are still not common place
in early years education (Berthelsen, Brownlee & Johansson, 2009; Dalhberg & Moss 2005; Smith, Taylor &
The teaching of values is a national priority in Australia in order to promote responsible and contributing
members of society (Lovat & Toomey, 2007). In particular, the Australian National Framework for Values
Education in Australian Education (DEST, 2005), promotes a range of approaches to teaching that are focused
on supporting the understanding and application of moral and social values. The document recommends a range
of teaching strategies which include implicit and explicit teaching; opportunities to practice values; explicit
planning, implementation and monitoring of social and moral learning; and learning through all facets of school
life, discussion, and reflection. This policy clearly advocates a range of strategies that could be described as
active learning for children or a pedagogy of enactment. While the goals of teaching are to help students
understand and apply these values and to provide a safe and secure learning environment to explore values within
a whole school approach, there is a clear lack of focus on rights-based approaches to moral education in which
children are empowered to think and take action for change. This was also reflected in our study.
To promote rights-based approaches in teaching in the early years, everyday teaching practices and teachers’
interactions with children need to be examined with an agenda of children’s participation . In promoting rights-
based approaches, it is important that teachers are mindful of their relationships with children in order to listen to
children’s voices effectively (Berthelsen, Brownlee & Johansson, 2009; Rhedding-Jones et al., 2008).
Deconstruction of practice enables teachers to question their relationships with children, make changes to
practice and be more open to multiple perspectives. ‘Just repeating the research practices of others and the
everyday ways of organising and interacting in schools and preschools, is not so difficult. However if we wish to
act ethically around issues of power and voice, we have to act and speak differently’ (Rhedding-Jones et al.,
2008, p. 49). Implementing children’s participatory rights in practical situations demands, according to
Woodhead (2005), new role expectations for teachers. If children are to be allowed space for participation and
expression, we also need to critically look at one-sided understandings of relationships in which views of adults
are foregrounded (Bae, 2009). Studies such as this can provide insight into practices for teaching moral values
that can advance understanding about ways forward for values pedagogy.
There has been limited research that investigates the extent to which children’s voices are heard in the teaching of
moral values. Our study suggests that teachers are more focused on a pedagogy of enactment rather than a
pedagogy of participation. If pedagogy of participation for social change is to be promoted, then it is critical that
an ecological theoretical framework is explored. We need to view pedagogies for participation holistically using
both micro and macro dimensions. At the micro level we need to be engaging children in taking responsibility for
moral learning and at the macro level, policy documents need to be clearly reflecting a rights-based approach to
teaching for moral learning.
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